tue 04/08/2020

Return to Betjemanland, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Return to Betjemanland, BBC Four

Return to Betjemanland, BBC Four

AN Wilson's highly condensed biodoc rattles along giddily but brilliantly

Betjeman (left) shared a gift for demotic quotability with Larkin (right)

Poet and campaigner John Betjeman, who died 30 years ago this year, still has a public profile most writers would die for tomorrow. He shares with Philip Larkin the distinction of having written some memorably, demotically quotable lines of verse, their respective denunciations of Slough and parents being possibly the two best-known pieces of 20th-century verse.

Yet while Larkin has suffered from a perception of racism and misogyny, Betjeman’s reputation as a far-sighted architectural campaigner has, with his statue at St Pancras, one of the buildings he helped save, helped consolidate aspects of his reputation. AN Wilson, recounting Betjeman’s whole life and work in a too-brisk but brilliantly condensed hour’s biography, believes Betjeman’s poetry and his political stance also merit reconsideration.

The writerly psychological clefts began early and obviously with Betjeman. Eight when the First World War began, his surname originally a Germanic “Betjemann”, his childhood, with self-consciousness about his origins in trade, a bullying nanny obsessed with hell, a smothering mother and a domineering father, and two decidedly sporting boarding schools, allowed the seeds of self-doubt to vigorously sprout long before he arrived at Magdalen College, Oxford. There, his tutor, the unsentimentally rigorous CS Lewis, was the chalk cliffs of Dover to Betjeman’s decadent, runny cheese. Sent down after a year, Betjeman hung out with the aesthetic upper classes, cultivating a clownish humour to distract from objections to his trading background.  

Wilson argues that Betjeman can be a political and cultural figurehead

In what felt like three-and-a-half minutes, Wilson made a fascinating case for Betjeman as both a champion of artistic beauty and an ardent populist, his poetry proving hugely popular because it combines a charmingly accessible form and vocabulary with serious discussion of those poetic immovables, love, death, religion and sex. So far, so true, but Wilson didn’t really address Betjeman’s characteristically mannered language, which while simple, is undoubtedly dated. Though (to take the obvious comparison) Larkin’s classless, sarcastic vernacular chimes with modern readers, and his work is commonly set in examinations, it’s difficult to see Betjeman’s quaintly insistent rhymes about the mores of 1950s society (to over-simplify rather grossly) as much more than a literary curiosity for future readers.

Betjeman’s other claim to modernity, according to Wilson, is much more surprising. On the strength of his successful and dedicated campaigning for the preservation of distinguished architecture, as well as less successful but equally passionate attempts to preserve some of the gentler, kinder features of post-war Britain such as rural railways, Wilson argues that Betjeman can be a political and cultural figurehead resisting the reductive, materialistic, free-market consensus. Was Ed Miliband watching? He could do with Betjeman’s irresistible, phrase-making appeal.

One could only be impressed by Wilson’s feat of biographical compression in conveying a life as full as Betjeman’s in a single programme, though the project deserved at least twice as long. His succinct erudition, so rare on television, contrasts violently with the clumsy emoting which often replaces it, and his vocal delivery, patrician but passionate, with more Brian Sewell than of old, almost deserves its own arts documentary. Strongly argued and highly informative, this had originality, passion, humour and polemic. If only the rest of factual programming could match BBC Four on a Monday night.

His Oxford tutor, the unsentimentally rigorous CS Lewis, was the chalk cliffs of Dover to Betjeman’s decadent, runny cheese

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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